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As parents and teachers wait for the provincial government to release its plan for reopening public schools in the fall, children’s health experts say the benefits of returning to school outweigh the risks.
“We need to find a way, much like we have throughout opening other things, to be able to safely have kids come back to some form of normalcy, some areas that they can be together in some kind of regularity,” IWK Health Centre president and CEO Dr. Krista Jangaard said in an interview Tuesday.
“There have been lots of things touted for how it could be done, but I think that needs to be decided and we need to have a plan. And when we have a plan we need to understand that if the epidemiology of COVID changes in Nova Scotia, we might need to change our plan.”
On Monday, Canadian child health experts warned that COVID-19 emergency measures have kept children isolated and increased wait times for care. This, they said, has created a crisis with “potentially catastrophic impacts to the physical and mental health of children.”
Children First Canada, an alliance of organizations that include the country’s leading children’s hospitals, charities, and research institutes, outlined several concerns in a media release.
“With schools out for summer, childcare spaces being few and far between, and plans for a return to school in the fall still being determined, there are concerns that children’s human rights are being violated,” the release noted.
“These include their rights to a quality education, the highest attainable standard of health, protection from violence, and access to recreation.”
On June 23, the Canadian Pediatric Society issued a document supporting a safe return to school for children and youth. The organization notes that while the physical, social, emotional, developmental, and academic consequences of school closures affect all children and youth, it’s especially difficult for those who were already vulnerable before the pandemic.
That includes children and youth with special needs and those who rely on schools for physical and mental health services as well as nutritious food.
“Facilitating a safe return to school by this September is therefore crucial not only for development and academic achievement, but for the health and well-being of Canada’s children and youth,” the Canadian Pediatric Society noted.
Besides the isolation and a drop in physical activity, Jangaard said children are also impacted because as social creatures they learn, grow, and develop through interaction.
“Thankfully we’re in the era of video platforms that allow us to connect and stay connected, but not exactly the same as being able to go out in the backyard or go play hockey with your friends,” she said.
Jangaard said a return to school in September requires balancing the risks of being together during a pandemic versus the risks posed by keeping children apart. She said it’s critical people work together to get back to school while keeping people safe as we continue to live with COVID.
“We do know just as some parents have been reticent to bring their kids to the health centre that there may be some parents that are worried about going back to school,” she said.
“But we also know that parents and families need to get a little bit back to normal and need to be able to go to work, and so getting kids back to school is also part of opening our economy.”
Pandemic impacts on service delivery
Jangaard said the IWK is still dealing with the backlog caused by restrictions placed on delivery of services due to the pandemic. Although the hospital continued to offer urgent care, inpatient mental health services, and care for time sensitive illnesses like cancer, non-urgent services including minor surgeries were delayed.
“Even when we get back to capacity towards the middle of the summer, that means we’ve had four or five months of extra wait and that wait gets added onto kids’ care,” she said.
For the first two months of the pandemic, Jangaard said the facility saw a significant drop in the number of people showing up at the emergency department as parents took to heart the message to stay home.
“Those numbers have gradually climbed up to more normal, but certainly there are still some folks that are hesitant to come and so we do worry that that might impact the health of our kids,” Jangaard said.
The IWK was able to offer many mental health services virtually in both individual and group formats. Although she didn’t have the numbers, Jangaard said their team did see an increase in the number of requests for mental health services.
She expects that to continue.
“One of the things we know is that COVID isn’t over, and the effects of the pandemic on mental health I suspect we’re going to be starting to see as we continue to move forward,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to keep those services there and available for kids.”
Waiting on a Nova Scotia plan
On Monday, Newfoundland and Labrador announced its plan for students returning to school in September.
“Current literature notes that children and youth are less susceptible to the risk of COVID-19 and that school closures increase inequalities in learning, particularly for those who are vulnerable,” the province notes in a media release. “With this in mind, it is critical to balance the risks of returning to school with the impacts on the physical and mental health of students.”
School districts in that province are planning for three different scenarios. The first would see in-school classes resume “near normal with health measures.” The second possibility would involve in-school classes that would “partially resume with additional health measures.” The final version would be at-home learning and in-school classes suspended or canceled.
Last Thursday, the PEI government announced its plan to safely return students to school in September. The plan includes students working in cohorts, staggered times for lunch and recess breaks as well as pick-up and drop-offs. There will also be physical distancing in classrooms, reduced class sizes, and enhanced cleaning protocols.
New Brunswick was the first of the Atlantic provinces to release its return to school plan. Announced on June 12, that plan will see students from Grade Primary to Grade 8 attending school full time. Those in Grades 9 to 12 will be taught “using blended learning methods” that will include in-class instruction and distance education.
Nova Scotia has yet to announce its return to school plan. In an email Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said the province’s plan will be released “by the end of July.”
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“With schools out for summer, childcare spaces being few and far between, and plans for a return to school in the fall still being determined, there are concerns that children’s human rights are being violated,” the release noted. How about their human right to being safe from a pandemic?